UPDATE, 3:30 p.m.:
PEORIA — After the verdict was read, Yingying Zhang's family gave a statement to the dozens of reporters waiting outside the courthouse.
"I thank the jury for this step towards justice," her father, Ronggao Zhang, said in Chinese, according to a provided translation. "We thank the prosecutors, the University of Illinois police, the FBI and all who helped in the investigation and trial of this case."
After the verdict was read Monday, the lead FBI agents on the case and the prosecutors walked over to Ms. Zhang's family and shook their hands.
Zhang also thanked the Chinese associations in Peoria and Champaign that have helped the family get acclimated.
"We have missed Yingying tremendously in the past two years. As of today, we still could not imagine how we will live the rest of our lives without her," he said. "There is no language that can describe our pain and suffering. We hope and believe that this trial will eventually bring justice to Yingying and us. Our wish has always been to find Yingying and bring her home. We will not give up."
Her father, Ronggao Zhang, gave a statement for the family after Christensen was convicted: "There is no language that can describe our pain and suffering…. Out wish has always been to find Yingying and bring her home. We will not give up." pic.twitter.com/p9DIQp6Zsj
— Ben Zigterman (@bzigterman) June 24, 2019
The family's lawyers, Zhidong Wang in Chicago and Steve Beckett in Urbana, also issued a statement on behalf of the family.
"They have been traumatized by the loss of Yingying, by the delays in the case against the person who murdered Yingying, and by the testimony they heard during the trial," Wang said. "Their emotional distress has been, at times, unbearable. The jury's verdict of guilty in this case is a step toward justice for Yingying and a step toward closure for Yingying's family."
They thanked the prosecutors and FBI agents, as well as Christensen's lawyers.
"We recognize that the defense lawyers had a difficult task in this case," they wrote. "We appreciate the respect they have shown the family."
The family's lawyers also thanked the witnesses, in particular Christensen's ex-girlfriend, Terra Bullis, who wore a wire for the FBI, and Emily Hogan, who also said she was approached by Christensen on June 9, 2017, the day Ms. Zhang was kidnapped and killed.
"Terra's courage is self-evident and the assistance she gave to law enforcement was invaluable," they wrote.
As for the potential sentence — life in prison or the death penalty — they wrote: "All we can say at this time is that we trust the jury's decision will be made in the name of justice for Yingying."
Also, University of Illinois spokeswoman Robin Kaler attended closing arguments Monday on behalf of the UI.
"I wanted to make sure that they know the University of Illinois family supports them and is hoping for justice," Kaler said. "It was good to see that being served today."
When the family arrived in Urbana two years ago to search for Ms. Zhang, Kaler worked with them directly.
"Just having been with the family and seeing the pain and the horror of dealing with something like this, and to know that our justice system moves much more slowly than the one they’re used to, it was just a relief to see justice being done today," she said.
Last week, Kaler couldn’t attend because she was in China for the UI's orientation for Chinese students, which a UI police officer also attended to talk about safety.
But Kaler said the kidnapping of Ms. Zhang was not brought up frequently at the orientation.
"Surprisingly, no," she said. "All of these students are students who are on their own journey. Since they have a small amount of time with us, they're focused on getting their own journey in order."
* * * * *
UPDATE, 2:05 p.m.:
PEORIA — Nearly two years after Brendt Christensen was arrested on charges of kidnapping and killing visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang, a jury convicted him for the crime Monday after nine days of trial, 35 witnesses and two hours of deliberation.
It wasn’t much of a surprise, given that Christensen's lawyers admitted he killed Ms. Zhang in their opening statement, but the guilty verdict put a cap on a case that has captivated the University of Illinois community and garnered international attention.
Christensen was also found guilty on two counts of lying to FBI agents, as he first told them he was sleeping or playing video games the day Ms. Zhang disappeared, and then that he picked her up but dropped her off a few blocks away.
Now the same jury of seven men and five women will decide whether to sentence Christensen to life in prison or death, an option that was abolished in 2011 in Illinois but is still available for federal cases such as this.
That will be decided when the sentencing phase of the trial begins July 8. Prosecutors will give their reasons for why Christensen deserves the death penalty, and the defense will argue why he does not.
The jury will be instructed to weigh these reasons, and for Christensen to receive the death penalty, a unanimous decision will have to be reached.
If just one juror isn't convinced Christensen deserves the death penalty, he will be sentenced to life in prison without parole.
* * * * *
UPDATE, 1:30 p.m.:
PEORIA — The jury in the trial of Brendt Christensen has reached a verdict, which is expected to be announced at 2 p.m.
An email notifying the press was sent less than two hours after deliberations began.
Christensen faces three charges:
— Kidnapping resulting in the death of Yingying Zhang, a visiting scholar at the University of Illinois from China.
— Lying to the FBI by saying he slept and played video games on June 9, 2017, the day Ms. Zhang was last seen.
— Lying to the FBI by saying that after he picked up an Asian woman, he dropped her off a few blocks away.
Lawyers for both sides presented their closing arguments this morning.
* * * * *
UPDATE, 11:35 a.m.:
PEORIA — It was a packed courthouse this morning in Peoria, including a heavy media contingent, visitors, a University of Illinois spokeswoman, the family of slain University of Illinois visiting scholar Yingying Zhang and lawyers and clerks.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller stood at the lectern facing the jury and tied together the evidence presented over eight days of trial, from the recording to Ms. Zhang's DNA at Christensen's apartment.
"He kidnapped her, he murdered her, and he covered up his crime," Miller began, "after months of planning and premeditation."
This case has "always been about the search for Yingying," he said. "There is only one person that is responsible, and he sits right there, the defendant, Brendt Christensen," who was wearing khakis and a blue dress shirt.
He said Christensen's "downward spiral," as the defense put it, was "caused by the defendant's own decisions that were the product of a 27-year-old man afraid to give up his way of life."
Miller said "idle hands are the devil's workshop" and argued that Christensen used his idle time to plan the murder.
"He didn't know (his victim) by name. She was still in China," he said.
In December 2016, he drunkenly told his wife about his interest in serial killers, which spooked her, Miller said.
And in March 2017, he told an intern at the UI Counseling Center that he had made murderous plans but abandoned them, Miller said.
Miller said that when Christensen's wife left for taht weekend in June 2017, Christensen had the opportunity to act on his plans.
He argued that Christensen attempted to pick up a woman that morning and picked up Ms. Zhang in the afternoon by pretending to be a police officer.
Miller said Christensen repeated how Christensen himself claimed he killed Ms. Zhang, and noted that Ms. Zhang's backpack, glasses, clothes and body have never been found.
Miller then noted the extensive cleaning done at his apartment and twice in his Saturn Astra, which his wife said was normally never cleaned.
He argued that the evidence showed Ms. Zhang's blood ran down the walls and pooled in the carpet, soaking in to the tack strip under the carpet.
Christensen also faces two counts of lying to the FBI, though Miller said Christensen's "lies are too numerous to detail."
Miller said it was "chilling to imagine the fear (Ms. Zhang) must've felt" when she got into Christensen's car and realized he was not a cop and wouldn't be taking her to One North to look at a new apartment.
"He knew exactly what he was doing," Miller said. "This was cold, and this was calculated."
He said Christensen had "been planning and fantasizing about this moment for months," he said. "She was an object for him to fulfill his dark desire, which was to kill for the sake of killing."
He said "tragically, the evidence of this (Yingying’s death) is overwhelming. Yingying has never been seen."
"Although he raped her, this was not about sex ... this was always about murder," Miller said.
Anticipating the defense's argument, he said, "This was not an impulsive drunken act."
He concluded after 68 minutes.
In her closing argument, Assistant Federal Defender Elisabeth Pollock said they weren't blaming his ex-wife or ex-girlfriend: "We never said that it's her fault. ... It's Brendt’s fault."
But she said, "we're trying to show you context" because "you have to go into the next phase of trial" to decide Christensen's sentence: life in prison or death. "The government wants to take his life."
Miller objected to Pollock bringing this up, as the jury was instructed not to consider possible punishments when deciding his guilt.
Pollock moved on, describing the wire recording of Christensen as "awful. It's horrible. It makes you hate him." But she told the jury to not let their emotions overcome facts.
She said the defense tried to show what kind of person Christensen is, struggling with alcohol and dark thoughts, but unable to get help, telling the counseling center, "I don't want to be this person."
"He struggled ... and ultimately, he didn't win," Pollock said. And "an innocent person is gone."
She said the evidence is clear that Christensen killed Ms. Zhang, and "I expect that you will" find him guilty. "But we're going to move on after that."
And she encouraged the jury to keep an open mind and to remember what has been proven and what has not.
She noted that Ms. Zhang's DNA was only found in the bedroom, not the bathroom, and that jurors shouldn't make assumptions about what may have happened.
She said they shouldn't assume everything Christensen said on the recording about how he killed Ms. Zhang is true, especially given his claim of her being his 13th victim, which has not been corrborated.
She wrapped up her argument in 10 minutes, and after a brief rebuttal by Miller, the jury was sent to deliberate at 11:35 a.m.
Once they reach a verdict, Judge Jim Shadid said he would hold it for 30 minutes to allow people to return to the courtroom.
* * * * *
Original story, published 8 a.m.:
PEORIA — Brendt Christensen's lawyers and the attorneys prosecuting him will make their final pitch today, with closing arguments set to begin at 9:30 a.m.
After that, a jury of seven men and five women will deliberate on whether Christensen is guilty of kidnapping and killing visiting University of Illinois scholar Yingying Zhang in June 2017.
A guilty verdict is expected, given that his lawyers admitted in their opening statement that Christensen killed Ms. Zhang.
If convicted, Christensen faces life in prison or the death penalty during a later sentencing phase of the trial, where lawyers for each side will argue to the same jury why Christensen does or does not deserve the death penalty.
The jury will also decide beginning today whether Christensen is guilty of two counts of lying to the FBI. Prosecutors say he initially told them he was sleeping or playing video games the day Ms. Zhang was last seen, and then that he let her out a few blocks away.
During the eight days of trial, prosecutors played surveillance footage of Ms. Zhang entering Christensen's Saturn Astra June 9, 2017, on Goodwin Avenue in Urbana.
She had arrived from China two months earlier and was looking for a new apartment at One North, but was running late.
The footage showed her missing a connecting bus and waiting for another.
Instead, Christensen's car is seen circling the block and pulling up to Ms. Zhang, and they talk for a minute before she enters his car.
Prosecutors also played for the jury twice a recording secretly made by Christensen's girlfriend of him describing in gruesome detail how he killed Ms. Zhang.
His ex-girlfriend testified for seven hours over two days, describing how at a campus vigil for Ms. Zhang three weeks after she went missing, he allegedly admitted he killed her by writing four lines in her notes app and deleting them: "It was me. She was No. 13. She is gone. Forever."
Federal prosecutors also presented evidence of Ms. Zhang's DNA in Christensen's bedroom and on the bat he claimed he hit her head with.
With their admission that Christensen killed Ms. Zhang, Christensen's lawyers seem focused on avoiding a death sentence.
While they pointed out limitations in the testimony and evidence presented throughout the trial, they struck back hardest at testimony that would show Christensen put substantial planning into his kidnapping or that he tortured Ms. Zhang.
In particular, they've argued that much of what Christensen describes on the secret recording can't be trusted, such as his uncorroborated claim of 13 victims, as they say he was drunk at the time and bragging to his girlfriend.
And instead of a preplanned murder stemming from Christensen's interest in serial killers, as described by the prosecution, his lawyers described a downward spiral brought on by months of marital problems and alcohol abuse.
They said he hit rock bottom the day of the attack, when he was home alone after his wife left for Wisconsin with her new boyfriend. Later that day, he kidnapped Ms. Zhang as she was waiting for a bus on campus.
Christensen's ex-wife testified during the trial for the defense, describing the marital issues they had stemming from Christensen's abuse of alcohol.
She was gone the weekend Christensen kidnapped Ms. Zhang. When she returned, she said their apartment looked and smelled the way it had when she left.
But she also acknowledged Christensen killed Ms. Zhang.
"I'm aware he's responsible for her death," she said Friday.
Throughout the trial, FBI agents and University of Illinois Police Department detectives described the extensive search for Ms. Zhang after she went missing.
They described working 20-hour days in the weeks after Ms. Zhang was kidnapped, searching garbage bags at Centennial Park, the Murdock Mine 30 miles south of Champaign and an isolated area near Olympian Road and Interstate 57.
And the search continued, with an FBI agent describing a search of Clinton Lake in November 2017 and another of Allerton Park in 2018.
Ms. Zhang's body has never been located, and Christensen isn't expected to tell anyone.
In the recording, Christensen said: "I won't tell you where she is. I won't tell anyone," and, "No one will ever know where she is. ... She's gone forever."